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Star Managers Miller, Nygren Stage Comeback

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Since stocks hit bottom a year ago, the S&P 500 has soared 70% and many well-known mutual funds have recorded banner results.

Managers who have surpassed their benchmarks by wide margins include Bruce Berkowitz of the Fairholme Fund (FAIRX), Bill Miller of the Legg Mason Value Trust (LMVTX) and Bill Nygren of the Oakmark Select Fund (OAKLX ).

To be sure, not all the big names outdid the S&P 500. Will Danoff of the Fidelity Contrafund (FCNTX) and Ken Heebner of the CGM Focus Fund (CGMFX) are among the laggards. Should you sell those two losers? Hardly. Each climbed more than 40% for the year, and they remain near the top of their category for 10-year returns.

Much of the gap between winners and losers can be explained by stock-market conditions. When the rebound began, the shakiest small stocks led the way as investors took on more risk and worried less about bankruptcies. Blue chips trailed at a time when it seemed less important to stay with rock-solid investments. As a result, small-value funds ranked near the top, doubling their value for the year, while large-growth funds trailed with a return of 68%.

With investors embracing value stocks, the strongest performers included some diehard contrarians, such as the Legg Mason Value Trust, which has doubled during the past year. Manager Bill Miller looks for undervalued stocks with good growth prospects. His portfolio includes turnaround candidates as well as stocks that seem too cheap.

After topping the S&P 500 for 15 straight years, Legg Mason fell behind in 2006 and 2007. Performance suffered in 2008 when some of the fund's financial positions collapsed. But early in 2009, Miller decided the big banks had bottomed and he began loading up on stocks such as JPMorgan Chase (JPM) and Bank of America (BAC). Those soared as credit markets recovered. Miller also scored with unloved retailers, including Sears (SHLD) and J.C. Penney (JCP).

Another big winner was Oakmark Select, which returned 99% for the year. Manager Bill Nygren buys stocks that sell for two-thirds or less of their fair values. He only takes companies with strong cash flows and strong growth potential. The formula backfired in 2007, when some cheap financial stocks collapsed as the credit crisis unfolded.

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